January 30, 2009

I had intended to be home today after a long three weeks that has taken me to Atlanta, Washington, Connecticut, Novia Scotia and finally Manchester and Llandrindod Wells. My original intent was to hire a car in Manchester and drive through the Welsh Marches to a workshop for various Welsh Local Authorities. From there a four hour drive would take me home. The marches road is one I know well as I drove it many a time with my father to help out with his duties as a veterinary surgeon, and then later a a solitary and strictly amateur palaeontologist with hammer and sample bags seeking out Trilobites. As it worked out I was simply too tired to risk the drive, and I needed time to write and catch up generally on email so I took the train. It was a good decision as I got a solid few hours of work in to Shrewsbury and then on the small single carriage train that plies its way between Shrewsbury and Swansea by way of multiple rural settlements and the odd market town, I fell into conversation with a scientist on his way to a conference on global warming. Overall the experience ended well, but with a less than salubrious overnight

Llandrindod Wells is a former Victorian Spa town, fallen on hard times but now a centre for activity in Welsh Government. It stands between the industrial (or rather post industrial) and dominant south with a history of activism and internationalism that encompasses the Chartists and the Spanish Civil War, and the rural, welsh speaking north. A tension ever present in Welsh culture (read Emyr Humphries novels to understand this). I grew up in the north, but, through my mother and most of our active relations identified with the south so I have lived in both, understand both but am not fully a member of either tribe.

Given that the last train leaves at 1530 and my workshop ended at 1600 I found a hotel and booked a room for the night. I will not name names on this occasion but suffice it to say that the hotel represented a missed opportunity. It had large rooms and a spectacular Victorian architecture, it had once been great but now it was at best shabby. The bed required careful positioning to avoid the springs, there was a smell of damp in two corners of the room and the heating was the fist two thirds of Goldilocks, either too hot or too cold. There was a wireless internet, I could get a signal but not pick up an IP address. My request that they reboot the router met with blank refusal; their computer was connected so there were no problems as far as they were concerned, would I please go away so they could return to their gossip. The wall paper was peeling off the wall in the bar so I left to find somewhere to eat. In retrospect the cheerful fish and chip shop next to the station might have been the best location. I finally found a bistro with pretension but little else. If I order a lamb steak I expect to be asked how I want it done. Spiced lentil soup should taste of something other than spice (lentil possibly) and bread which has been bought in bulk, frozen then reheated in a microwave just before it is served lacks shall we say class. Back to the hotel, the springs and a fitful night’s sleep in consequence

In the morning as I had paid for breakfast I decided to eat it, another mistake. Cereal was available but the milk had been out in an open jug next to the overheating toaster for the last two hours. The “full breakfast” ha largely been decanted from tins and burnt. Coffee still had the granules from the nescafe jar floating in the pot. I fled for the station and the train to Swansea.

From that point on I did not regret my choice to return by public transport in daylight. I had forgotten just how beautiful mid Wales is. Everyone knows about the castles and mountains of the north, the industrial heritage of the south. Mid Wales on the other hand is a treasure house of rivers, rough pasture, moorland, hills and wildlife. It makes the tragedy of Llandrindod Wells the more poignant. It is a Victorian town of great beauty with two hotels that with a little care could be spectacular and attract tourists in large numbers. When I arrived I walked past the farmers market displaying Welsh Black Beef, to my mind the superior of Aberdeen Angus, from local organic herds. Organic produce from local farms was also present. All the ingredients are there for good eating and quality restaurants. there is government business to keep things ticking over in the winter (although that is when I would visit for the light), spectacular scenery and wildlife for the summer, local produce and a unique and consistent architectural style which escaped the blight of the 1970s. All it needs is for someone to care for it and promote it.

P1010122.JPG Those at least were by thoughts as the train left the recently restored station and headed south-west. This is one of the most spectacular train journeys in the UK, especially on a day where the horizon is a mass of black thunder clouds to the right, while to the left the sun plays on mountains and woods dappled with water. The light effects in the rain washed sky creating an air of mystery and promise of a magical reward for exploration. From Llandrindod Wells to Llanwrtyd Wells the track follows the Afon Irfon (Afon is the welsh for river) with Pen-y-Fan, majestic summit of the Brecon Beacons, where I lost my wedding ring and much else many years ago, in the background. Soon the Black Mountains provide a backdrop for which the only proper description is brooding.

My great grandfather came from this area as a boy, moving to Cardiff and rising to the post of Head Game Keeper to the Marquis of Bute, builder of castles and the richest man in the world at the time. His heart attack led to the eviction of my great grandmother and their considerable brood of children who ended up in the docks of Cardiff (where at the time the police walked in threes) and over two generations by dint of hard work and effort moved out to Pencisely. The irony is that now the docks they left are now one of the more desirable areas of of Cardiff. I remember phoning my mother from there during IBM days. There was the prospect of the Cynefin Centre being located in the University and I was looking at converted warehouses. When I told her the name of the street there was silence, then a response which was short and to the point: You are not moving back there, the family spent years saving every penny to leave it. Now my mother was a highly educated women, She had a first class honours degree in German, won a scholarship and fought family pressure to pursue that education and studied in Germany in the late 1940s. However that place was a part of the collective consciousness of the family.

Memories drifting to both sad and happy moments, the train reaches Llandovery a lost treasure of a market town that sits comfortably between the spectacle of the Brecon Becons and the desolate beauty of the moors of Ceredigion, haunt of red kites. From now on the land is more pastoral and the rivers are larger, angry with flood water and the debris of a harsh winter. The sun reflects from barn roofs as much as from flooded fields and human habitation is more frequent. The language of people as they get off and on the train is a mixture of welsh and english. We have mothers taking young children into Swansea for shopping, farmers moving between market towns and students returning home for the weekend from Universities in England.

To the right of the train, south-west of Llangadog by the banks of the Afon Tywi I see my first lambs of the season, sat patiently at the side of their mother looking curiously at the still novel passing of a train, a phenomena ignored by the ewe. The next stop is Llandeilo and here we depart the increasing swollen Tywi and head south towards the coast . From this point the scenery is increasingly industrial and modern, although as in the whole of South Wales you are never far from moorland, river banks and woods.

We stop in Llanelli for ten minutes as the train has to reverse direction. This is a town seeped in rugby history and defined to the world by its team and the failure of non-welsh commentators to grasp the “Ll” sound (shared between Welsh and Zulu). The driver walks down the platform as our carriage has two driver cabs and we head for Swansea, crossing the spectacular estuary of the Loughor. From Swansea a much larger train, the Great Western to London, passes the Osprey’s new stadium half way to Neath our first stop. From there to Cardiff (with a conference call to Washington about a new project a brief intrusion on my nostalgia). As we approach the capital I can see the new Blues stadium being built at Leckwith, before the Arms Park and Millennium stadium emerge on my left as we cross the Taff. The next stop is Newport and as we leave the station and cross the Usk, Rodney Parade is visible on the right. The tide is out and the river a narrow thread between banks of mud. The Norman castle which once guarded this crossing is now reduced to one overgrown tower, but can sense how its white washed walls would have dominated the area in the early middle ages . In the space of an hour I have now passed the grounds of all four Welsh Regional rugby sides. Welsh rugby is in intimate affair of war being between neighbours until the six nations unites us. A week tomorrow with son, daughter and boy friend and probably sixty thousand fellow welsh men and women I will head for Edinburgh and the opening match of this important ritual against the Scots. We are installed as favourites for the first time in twenty years and all the talk in Wales is of back to back Grand Slams. I think only the New Zealanders (and possibly Munster) can really understand the degree to which national identity and self confidence is based on the performance of 22 men in red over the months that span the transition of winter into spring.

All of those grounds, both the old and the new carry many memories over more than forty years. I attended matches with my mother as my son now does with me. When we lived i North Wales we paced the floor in front of the television willing that kick to go over, the pass to go to hand or the key tackle be made. I remain convinced to this day that the collective act of will of watching a match life influences the result no matter how physically separated you are from the turf. The hills that I have passed through I have climbed, the rivers (less frequently) have been the pathways of exploration by canoe. I have drunk in the pubs and tea rooms, visited the cattle markets and the farms suffered from depression and elation in its Rugby grounds..

We are now leaving Wales through the Severn tunnel. It is time to draw this indulgent narrative to a close. Soon we will past Bristol to Wiltshire and thence home assuming my daughter remembers to pick me up from the station. I say home but maybe I should really say abode. Wiltshire has been good to both me and my children, but it can never really be home. There is a welsh word hiraeth which indicates a desire or longing to return to ones roots, the Cynefin and today I know what it means; I want to return to this land and live in it.

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